Singer: Should we ban cigarettes?
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November 14th, 2011
08:25 PM ET

Singer: Should we ban cigarettes?

Editor's Note: Peter Singer is professor of bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. His books include Animal LiberationPractical EthicsThe Ethics of What We Eat, and The Life You Can Save. For more from Singer, visit Project Syndicate's website, or check it out on Facebook and Twitter.

By Peter Singer

U.S. President Barack Obama’s doctor confirmed last month that the president no longer smokes. At the urging of his wife, Michelle Obama, the president first resolved to stop smoking in 2006, and has used nicotine replacement therapy to help him. If it took Obama, a man strong-willed enough to aspire to and achieve the U.S. presidency, five years to kick the habit, it is not surprising that hundreds of millions of smokers find themselves unable to quit.

Although smoking has fallen sharply in the U.S., from about 40% of the population in 1970 to only 20% today, the proportion of smokers stopped dropping around 2004. There are still 46 million American adult smokers, and smoking kills about 443,000 Americans each year. Worldwide, the number of cigarettes sold – six trillion a year, enough to reach the sun and back – is at an all-time high. Six million people die each year from smoking – more than from AIDS, malaria, and traffic accidents combined. Of the 1.3 billion Chinese, more than one in ten will die from smoking.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that it would spend $600 million over five years to educate the public about the dangers of tobacco use. But Robert Proctor, a historian of science at Stanford University and the author of a forthcoming blockbuster entitled Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition, argues that to use education as one’s only weapon against a highly addictive and often lethal drug is unpardonably insufficient.

“Tobacco control policy,” Proctor says, “too often centers on educating the public, when it should be focused on fixing or eliminating the product.” He points out that we don’t just educate parents to keep toys painted with lead-based paints away from their children’s mouths; we ban the use of lead-based paint. Similarly, when thalidomide was found to cause major birth defects, we did not just educate women to avoid using the drug when pregnant.

Proctor calls on the FDA to use its new powers to regulate the contents of cigarette smoke to do two things. First, because cigarettes are designed to create and maintain addiction, the FDA should limit the amount of nicotine that they contain to a level at which they would cease to be addictive. Smokers who want to quit would then find it easier to do so.

Second, the FDA should bear history in mind. The first smokers did not inhale tobacco smoke; that became possible only in the nineteenth century, when a new way of curing tobacco made the smoke less alkaline. That tragic discovery is already responsible for about 150 million deaths, with many times that toll still to come, unless something drastic is done. The FDA should therefore require that cigarette smoke be more alkaline, which would make it less easily inhaled, and so make it harder for cigarette smoke to reach the lungs.

Much of Proctor’s book, which will be published in January, is based on a vast archive of tobacco-industry documents, released during litigation. More than 70 million pages of industry documents are now available online.

The documents show that, as early as the 1940’s, the industry had evidence suggesting that smoking causes cancer. In 1953, however, a meeting of the chief executives of major American tobacco companies took a joint decision to deny that cigarettes are harmful. Moreover, once the scientific evidence that smoking causes cancer became public, the industry tried to create the impression that the science was inconclusive, in much the same way that those who deny that human activities are causing climate change deliberately distort the science today.

As Proctor says, cigarettes, not guns or bombs, are the deadliest artifacts in the history of civilization. If we want to save lives and improve health, nothing else that is readily achievable would be as effective as an international ban on the sale of cigarettes. (Eliminating extreme poverty worldwide is about the only strategy that might save more lives, but it would be far more difficult to accomplish.)

For those who recognize the state’s right to ban recreational drugs like marijuana and ecstasy, a ban on cigarettes should be easy to accept. Tobacco kills far more people than these drugs.

Some argue that as long as a drug harms only those who choose to use it, the state should let individuals make their own decisions, limiting its role to ensuring that users are informed of the risks that they are running. But tobacco is not such a drug, given the dangers posed by secondhand smoke, especially when adults smoke in a home with young children.

Even setting aside the harm that smokers inflict on nonsmokers, the free-to-choose argument is unconvincing with a drug as highly addictive as tobacco, and it becomes even more dubious when we consider that most smokers take up the habit as teenagers and later want to quit. Reducing the amount of nicotine in cigarette smoke to a level that was not addictive might meet this objection.

The other argument for the status quo is that a ban on tobacco might result in the same kind of fiasco as occurred during Prohibition in the US. That is, like the effort to ban alcohol, prohibiting the sale of tobacco would funnel billions of dollars into organized crime and fuel corruption in law-enforcement agencies, while doing little to reduce smoking.

But that may well be a false comparison. After all, many smokers would actually like to see cigarettes banned because, like Obama, they want to quit.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Peter Singer.

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Topics: Culture • Debate • Global • Health • Ideas

soundoff (352 Responses)
  1. cigaro

    I was fine when I was told that I had to smoke outside-very happy to oblige-the last thing I want to do is to MAKE someone else uncomfortable. If you do not smoke, I will NOT smoke around you. BUT–who do you think you are telling ME that I CANNOT smoke at all? You want to take away MY CHOICE.... Who do you proponents of banning cigarettes think that you are? Did you know that to work at CNN you CANNOT be a smoker? How is that OK? I have a RIGHT to smoke if I WANT TO....and non-smokers certainly have the right to breathe fresh air....I despise an inconsiderate smoker.... All of our rights are slowly being stripped away....Do not tell me how to live my life and I will stay out of yours

    November 16, 2011 at 7:04 pm | Reply
    • Steve

      You are one of few considerate smokers. As a severe asthmatic, I appreciate your consideration for my right to breathe / live. I have been hospitalized twice as a child and almost died once because of cigarette smoke. As a physician, I believe that at some later date you may regret taking advantage of your right to smoke. If you happen to read this post, Mr. Cigaro, please do me (and perhaps yourself) a favor. Go to the kitchen and find a straw. Now breathe through the straw for a few minutes. If you don't pass out first, you now have some idea how emphysema feels.

      November 16, 2011 at 9:35 pm | Reply
  2. Hadenufyet

    List a new quick vote..jeez... this ones grown stale...

    November 16, 2011 at 8:04 pm | Reply
  3. tree

    I think that cigarette companioes should be forced to put all the chemical they use to produce cigarettes on the container like that of food or drinks. I also think the companies should be forced to put on their containers that their nicotine levels are addictive forming. If some brave company is willing to make cigarettes with lower amounts of nicotine, then they should put that on their container. I also believe that any company which produces anything that goes into our body, shoud have to put their contents on the container.

    November 16, 2011 at 8:17 pm | Reply
    • Hadenuffyet

      It won't matter. If people don't know the risk by now they're daft.

      November 16, 2011 at 9:03 pm | Reply
    • Steve

      Your thoughts are quite noble, Mr Tree, but people smoke BECAUSE of the nicotine. Taking the nicotine out of a cigarette leaves nothing more than a roll of burning paper. Simply putting the nicotine content on the container will not get people to stop smoking.

      November 16, 2011 at 9:31 pm | Reply
  4. Steve

    Cigarettes will never be banned. Simply put, cigarette taxes are too lucrative. Not only are millions addicted to nicotine, but the government is addicted to the tax revenue these addicts generate. Given that smokers tend to be of lower socio-economic status, we can consider this a modern version of the "poor tax". Unfortunately, this one costs more than $15 of monopoly money, and is paid for with lives as well as cash.

    November 16, 2011 at 9:28 pm | Reply
  5. Dan Watson

    We should ban the banishment of things we don't like. The profits will just wind up in the hands of drug smugglers.

    November 16, 2011 at 11:58 pm | Reply
  6. Tony Vaughn

    Yes, by all means do outlaw cigarettes It not only kills millions every year, but we the tax payers have to support most of them inside hospitals till they do die, at even a greater cost. Let the smugglers make their $40.00 a pack for smokes. Won't happen. It may be an addicting drug in its form, but is very unlike the other drugs. people just will not buy smokes at that price. The rich of the tobacco farming sector will have to grow vege's

    November 17, 2011 at 8:59 am | Reply
    • brian


      November 17, 2011 at 5:51 pm | Reply
  7. brian

    Between 1964 and 2004 over 12million people died from cigarettes ... I dont even want to know how many more have died to this very day...ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!!! People need to stop pretending like cigarettes arnt doing much damage.

    November 17, 2011 at 6:29 pm | Reply
  8. yahmez

    I am all for the banning of cigarettes. I started smoking them to curb excessive marijuana use. I no longer smoke marijuana, but have a difficult time controlling mood swings while trying to quit tobacco. If they were not available, I wouldn't continue to smoke.

    November 17, 2011 at 8:26 pm | Reply
  9. Michele

    Granted, smoking is one of the factors fueling our out-of-control healthcare costs, which in turn is one of the elements of our economic crisis....but another "War on _____"? The only thing the war on drugs has done is fund drug cartels, war lords, and terrorist groups...let's not even get into other unfunded (read money borrowed from the Chinese) wars! So we would add yet another layer of law enforcement and black-market high-demand, high-priced commodities that support corruption and fuel illegal activities...any of the above are not good for the health of our nation or its economy. We subsidize what's killing us and then can't afford the consequences...go figure!

    November 21, 2011 at 12:02 pm | Reply
  10. hakeem


    December 1, 2011 at 9:37 am | Reply
  11. johnny

    Many Americans have died from Nicotine addiction. Yet cigarette companies are allowed to continue making billions while Americans are dying from inhaling their product.

    I wish, cancer stricken Americas would sue the Cagarette companies – and succeed in gaining compensation form their law suits. This could start an avalanche of lawsuits and deal a death blow to the Cigarette industry. A natural death if you like.

    But sadly, why should the American courts allow this to happen?

    Afterall, cigarette tax is bringing in billions of dollars to local economies.

    December 5, 2011 at 10:45 pm | Reply
  12. Mark

    Timothy Leary ( a non-smoker) went into Los Angeles International Airport a few years before his passing and just blatantly lit up a cigarette, (and naturally got arrested,) just to make the point that we have TOO MANY RULES and are losing our freedom.

    December 10, 2011 at 4:18 pm | Reply
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